Is this the Golden Age for the World’s Small Places?

Today, the 50 most prosperous cities in America produce 34% more economic output per person than the national average. Their populations are growing at 3 times the national rate. That’s because they are magnets for ambitious and talented workers and the companies that need their services to power growth.

These statistics come from the US, courtesy of The Economist (“The Great Divergence,” March 12, 2016). But the same phenomenon is evident every place there is an industrial or post-industrial economy. In the words of economist Tyler Cowen of George Mason University, “average is over.” The question for mayors, city managers, members of council and concerned citizens is this: on which side of “not average” is your community going to be?

You can get a good idea by looking around you. Is your community a place where new businesses and new industries get a strong start, with the help of partners like universities and community colleges? Do your citizens have the skills needed to power prosperity? Does your government partner creatively with business and institutions to help them grow? Are you looking after the people who have been left out of the digital economy?

entrepreneur.jpgIf the answer to most of these questions is “yes,” your community is above average. If not, you have every chance to get there, whatever your community’s size, location or history. Because broadband has become the great economic leveler of our time. As James Fellows documents in the March issue of The Atlantic (“How America is Putting Itself Back Together”), small cities in the middle of nowhere are becoming hotbeds of company formation.

The small places of the world that are robustly connected can be global competitors, whether they are Redlands, California (home to ESRI, the world leader in GIS) or Duluth, Minnesota, which has become one of America’s aerospace centers thanks largely to the two brothers who founded Cirrus Design. They are places where people want to live for the sake of the place, not just a paycheck. And they have one enormous advantage over tech hubs like Silicon Valley, Austin, Boston or New York. Land is cheap. As Mr. Fellows puts it, ‘Every calculation – the cash flow you must maintain, the life balance you can work toward – is different when a nice family house costs a few hundred thousand dollars rather than a few million.”

For more than 15 years, ICF has dedicated itself to learning from above-average communities how to turn broadband into economic opportunity, social progress and cultural richness. Now that the evidence is rolling in, we are here to teach the principles, measure your results, and celebrate the victors through our annual Intelligent Community Awards. Welcome to the Intelligent Community movement.

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research, analysis and content development activities.
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